No Honor among Thieves: Shanghai Triad Review

Next in my Zhang Yimou retrospective, I look at Shanghai Triad.

Shanghai Triad (1995) marked something of a return to familiar territory for Zhang Yimou. After the near-docudrama of The Story of Qiu Ju and the sweeping family saga of To Live, Zhang once again made a downbeat period drama centered around a woman trapped in both an unhealthy relationship with an older man and a unhealthy larger society.

What is different this time is the precise nature of the society in which the woman finds herself: here it is a Shanghai-based organized crime family of the 1930s. Shanghai Triad is thus not merely a tortured domestic drama but something of a crime thriller. The result of Zhang’s combination of familiar subject matter with a new genre is a visually sumptuous, absorbing, but rather emotionally unsatisfying movie.

Written by Bi Feiyu, from a novel by Li Xiao, the movie is told from the perspective of Shuisheng (Wang Xiaoxiao), a poor 14-year-old boy from the countryside. Shuisheng’s family has sent him to the big city of Shanghai to make his fortune among some distant relatives, the Tang crime family.

Guided by his gruff uncle Liu (Li Xuejian), Shuisheng starts his career in the family as a personal servant to the beautiful Bijou (Gong Li). A nightclub singer, Bijou is the mistress of the crime family’s boss (Li Baotian).

Serving as her flunky, Shuisheng is drawn into her complicated life and the bloody world of the Tangs. The boy witnesses Bijou’s less-than-harmonious relationship with the boss, observes the boss’ various lieutenants, and soon must contend with the consequences of Shanghai’s gangland rivalries.

As one might expect from a Zhang movie, Shanghai Triad looks great. High society fashion and décor circa the 1930s are hard to beat for style, and production designer Cao Juiping, art directors Huang Xin Ming and Ma Yongming, and costumers Anna Brault and Tong Huamiao have all done their jobs impeccably. The palatial home of Tang the crime boss is especially impressive, with its endless, gleaming white hallways. Meanwhile, Gong Li has never looked more glamorous as Bijou.

Providing the final crucial element in the mix is cinematographer Lu Yue. Colors are characteristically vivid. Red is used quite shamelessly, whether for Bijou’s lips, nails, and clothes; the petals of a crushed rose; or an element that makes its inevitable appearance in stark contrast to the white walls and floors of the mob headquarters.

Scenes in the nightclub have a gauzy light to them that add to the place’s dream-like allure. Rural beauty also gets its moment to shine: a sojourn in the countryside late in the movie gives us plenty of striking greens and yellows, as well as night-time blue.

Bijou’s performances in the nightclub also give us several songs, from the playful “Pretending” to the serenely upbeat “Moonlight” (also called “Bright Moon”) to the sultry but mournful “Be Gone.” As a purely visual and aural treat, Shanghai Triad offers plenty to enjoy.

Beyond this sensual experience, the movie boasts some stand-out performances and a lot of well-observed details that add texture to the characters and their world.

The heart of the movie is Gong Li as Bijou. Gong may have never looked better, but she has also never acted nastier than here. As a spoiled yet resentful gangster’s moll, Bijou is predictably not given to much kindness or restraint. She bullies the inexperienced Shuisheng, humiliates a maid who acted inappropriately, harasses a peasant couple simply because she is bored and lacks anything else to do, and at one point wrecks her room in a fit of anger. Gong pulls out all the stops in showing Bijou’s selfishness and temper.

Yet Gong is also a skilled-enough actress—and Bi is a skilled-enough screenwriter—not to leave matters there. As the movie unfolds, she reveals Bijou’s deep unhappiness with her situation and envy for women with less elegant but more normal lives. From this unhappiness emerge flashes of real compassion. It’s an impressive portrait of a complex person.

Along with Gong, two supporting players stand out for their ability to hit multiple notes in their performances. Jiang Baoying, as a peasant woman who crosses paths with Bijou, is diffident in the face of this wealthier, more successful woman yet still exudes warmth and decency. Li Baotian, as the Tang boss, seems retiring, even feeble. Yet he has a steelier side (portended by his ominously opaque dark glasses) that becomes apparent later.

The movie is filled with telling moments and details. Bijou’s ambiguous position as both an object of powerful men’s desire yet also a formidable person in her own right is conveyed in various ways. Uncle Liu speaks contemptuously of her when talking to Shuisheng in private, yet is obsequious, even fearful, when directly dealing with her. Bijou has her own mansion, separate from the Tang boss’ place, and can force him to negotiate for access to her. Yet she must perform the songs he wants, not her preferred numbers, as is demonstrated memorably in one scene. (The way Bijou’s whole manner turns on a dime when, after being forced to perform a song against her wishes, the nightclub curtain finally drops, is another great moment from Gong.)

Shanghai Triad also captures how the westernized ways and fashions of the organized crime family clash with the lives of so many of their fellow Chinese. Bijou’s room is incongruously decorated with paintings of European aristocratic ladies. When she visits the countryside, she looks grotesquely out of place in her gowns and furs.

Even when she switches to peasant clothes, she still clashes with her surroundings with her nightclub-influenced singing and dancing.

The countryside sojourn also includes an understated yet chilling scene that is in a class of its own. We see an outwardly friendly older man perform a seemingly random act of kindness for a sweet-faced girl, but the kindness disguises far more sinister concerns. While the interaction is brief, almost a throwaway moment, it tells us a lot about the gangsters and their ways.

These elements are Shanghai Triad’s strengths. The movie also has some major weaknesses, one obvious and another more subtle but still significant.

The obvious weakness is that the character of the boy Shuisheng does not work. He is clearly meant to be very important to the movie: we start the story with him, he is in most scenes, and Zhang frequently emphasizes his perspective, whether through tight close ups of Shuisheng’s face or point-of-view tracking shots meant to show the boy’s view of events. This last approach provides us with some memorable shots, especially a nightmarish long take presenting a panicked Shuisheng’s perspective as he runs through the boss’ mansion. Yet none of this can substitute for characterization that is simply not there.

Shuisheng speaks very little in the movie, so we do not learn much about him or his reactions to what is happening. Zhang seems to want Wang Xiaoxiao’s sensitive features to do all the work of conveying what the boy is thinking. Sometimes this works, as when Wang reveals Shuisheng’s excitement at first seeing the nightclub or in a moment when Shuisheng reacts with surprise to a telephone ringing—and we realize he almost certainly has never seen a phone before. Much of the time, though, the largely silent young protagonist remains just a blank on screen.

I think Shuisheng is meant to provide a window onto how the mob’s life damages the innocents caught up in it. He gets a couple late scenes that illustrate this theme. For much of the movie, though, he just moves about performing tasks silently and not adding much to the story dramatically.

Watching Shanghai Triad, I was reminded of another visually impressive period movie about tangled, violent adult relationships that is told from a child’s point of view: Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven (1978). Much of that movie’s story is filtered through the perspective of the young sister, played by Linda Manz. Yet unlike Shanghai Triad, the sister narrates the movie and thus gives the viewer some insight into her thoughts. Narration can often be used in a ham-fisted way in movies (and Malick has certainly been guilty of that). In Days of Heaven, though, the sister’s cryptic comments, simultaneously naïve and blunt, all delivered in Manz’s distinctively flat voice, give us a genuine sense of her character and add another welcome layer to the story. Something like that would have helped Shanghai Triad.

The movie’s less obvious weakness is a problem perhaps inherent in the subject matter. Zhang’s movies are frequently tragic. A favored trope in his stories is the Cruel Reversal, where  an apparently good situation has unexpectedly bad results or seemingly innocuous, even well-intentioned, decisions have terrible consequences. Shanghai Triad is no exception. In the finale, multiple characters reap what they sow, and not just in payment for their bad deeds. One character’s more humane instincts ultimately end up causing more harm than good by the end.

The reversals here have less emotional weight than in Zhang’s other movies, though. When tragic endings are the result of larger social injustices, be they a system that treats women as property or the whims of a one-party regime, we may react with outrage, horror, or sorrow. When tragic endings are the result of life’s unfairness and unpredictability, we may nod our heads in sympathy. However, when such endings are the result of being involved with a gang of murderous goons, one cannot help but think “Well, that figures.” This does not make Shanghai Triad’s resolution bad—the conclusion hangs together pretty well on a plot level—but I did not find it especially moving.

While not Zhang Yimou’s best or most powerful work, Shanghai Triad was still a turning point of sorts in the director’s career. After this movie, he and Gong Li parted ways for a time: they would not work together again for over a decade. How the director fared without his longtime leading lady and what directions his work took next we shall see in future retrospective installments.

Published by Cameraman_21C

I am an inveterate movie lover, to whom talking and writing about the movies is an activity second only to watching them.

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